Loved one lost: When dementia leads to wandering

Posted Sept. 05, 2008, at 7:43 p.m.

BELMONT, Maine — It was a cool, rainy Friday morning in May of this year when 69-year-old Charles Springer walked away from his home on a back road in this sparsely settled rural community in Waldo County.

“Chuck would walk these roads all the time, visiting people. When he went for a walk that day, we didn’t think it was any different, except he was angry,” said his sister Joanne Grigoreas.

But it was different, because Springer, who suffers from dementia, has never come back. A nearby neighbor reported seeing him walk by shortly after 9 a.m. and someone else spotted him later that morning about three miles away at the town hall, where he may have headed in a misguided attempt to have his driver’s license reinstated.

Other than those two sightings, Chuck Springer, a former long-distance truck driver, just disappeared without a trace, with only the clothes on his back and the shoes on his feet. Despite an intensive search effort, his fate remains unknown.

“He probably walked and walked until he couldn’t walk anymore, then maybe he took refuge in the woods,” said 88-year-old Ellie Springer, who still lives in the home she shared with her son. “When hunting season comes, maybe they’ll find him then.”

Prevalent danger

“Wandering is such a dangerous behavior for someone with dementia, and it is so prevalent,” said Peg Gagnon, outreach specialist with the Maine Alzheimer’s Association. An estimated 70 percent of all people with dementia at some time will wander and become lost, she said. Especially in rural areas, confused individuals can quickly lose track of familiar landmarks, and unless a friendly soul happens along and offers assistance, the likelihood of getting seriously lost is great.

Gagnon said family caregivers often underestimate the danger of wandering.

Many times, caregivers are reluctant to restrict their loved one’s activities, fearful of humiliating them or isolating them from friends and neighbors, Gagnon said. Or they don’t understand how far the dementia has progressed and think it’s safe to leave their family member unwatched for periods of time.

“Many people believe that because a loved one has grown up or lived in a particular area for a long time they won’t become lost,” Gagnon said. It’s a dangerous assumption, and one that has led to a recent increase in the number of searches for lost and missing elderly family members.

According to Lt. Patrick Dorian of the Maine Warden Service, of the 390 searches conducted in Maine so far this year, 27 have been for elderly people with dementia. All have been found, most alive and safe — except Charles Springer. Dorian said he feels certain Springer is deceased.

While reliable search data for earlier years are not readily available, Dorian said dementia is a factor in more searches each year, as the population in Maine ages. Searches for people with dementia tend to be longer and more intensive than searches for other adults, he said, complicated by the reality that a person with dementia may not be capable of responding to searchers’ calls, may be actively hiding or not have any desire to be found, or, indeed, not have any idea that he or she is lost.

Dorian described a concentrated nighttime search earlier this year for an elderly woman from Hallowell who had wandered away from her home and was found several hours later sitting alone in the middle of a forest clearing.

“She was very happy, very content,” he said. “I’m not sure she even recognized she was lost.”

Many years ago, he recalled, an elderly woman in the Lincoln area managed to drive her mothballed sedan miles along an old woods road before getting the car hopelessly stuck and proceeding deep into the forest on foot.

Searchers were able to find her, alive and in good shape, in part because she carried a pocketful of obituaries she had snipped out of the local newspaper and was leaving a trail of clippings behind her. “She thought she was going back to her family homestead,” Dorian said. “She had no idea where she was.”

Confusion and memory loss are hallmarks of dementia, said Gagnon of the Alzheimer’s Association. But more fundamental changes in the brain also contribute to the risk of wandering. She told of a woman who had the backyard fenced in to keep her husband, who was afflicted with Alzheimer’s, from leaving the property. After realizing he had been outside for a long time, she went looking for him and found he had walked into the corner of the tall chainlink fence and was unable to find his way out.

“He was lost in the corner, unable to negotiate the space he was in,” she said. That kind of spatial disconnect can be deadly in the woods, she noted, even if the individual isn’t far from home.

Gagnon and Dorian will speak next week at the annual conference of the Maine Alzheimer’s Association in Bangor. Their presentations will focus on ways to keep loved ones safe and reduce the risks of wandering. Other topics will include new genetic research into Alzheimer’s disease, techniques for improving communication, and the importance of supporting family caregivers. Also presenting will be author and Maine Warden Service chaplain Kate Braestrup, author of the book “Here if You Need Me.”

Family keeps the vigil

As summer mellows into fall, Chuck Springer’s family still hopes he’ll be found alive.

“We think he might have walked to Route 3 and hitched a ride,” said Grigoreas, who has left her job and her home in Massachusetts to watch and wait with her mother in Maine. “He could have gotten a job. He could be anywhere.” She has contacted her brother’s far-flung network of trucking buddies, asking them to be on the lookout. She has had color posters placed in truck stops across the country and has submitted information to an online Web site for missing people. She’s not giving up.

Ellie Springer said the circumstances of her oldest child’s disappearance weigh heavily on her. They’d argued the day before, Chuck expressing his ongoing anger and frustration at having lost his driver’s license while his 88-year-old mother still had hers. That afternoon, she said, she had avoided him, fearful of stirring up another confrontation.

If she had been kinder, more solicitous, she wondered out loud, maybe he wouldn’t have left.

As the weeks pass slowly by, she holds onto her hope.

“Chuck was very strong; I think he would have tried very hard to stay alive,” she said.

Anyone with information relative to Charles Springer’s disappearance should call the Maine State Police at 800-452-4664.

Alzheimer’s conference next week in Bangor

The Maine Alzheimer’s Association will host its annual fall conference this year from 8.a.m. to 4 p.m, Wednesday, Sept. 10, at the Spectacular Event Center in Bangor. The conference is open to family caregivers as well as professionals. Registration is $30 for family members, with some scholarships available, and $90 for professionals. More information is available online at www.alz.org/maine or by calling 772-0115.

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